CHESTER, Pa. — Peter Nowak remembers a time not long ago when big-name European clubs would rarely come to the US to play against MLS teams. And even the ones that did, the Philadelphia Union manager noted, would usually just do so to give their players a vacation or the chance to visit family members.
Now it’s a whole different story.
For proof, just look at the Union’s upcoming schedule, which includes a game Wednesday against English Premier League side Everton FC at PPL Park (7:30 pm ET), followed by another high-profile international exhibition vs. La Liga superpower Real Madrid in the World Football Challenge on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Union’s matchup against Everton is one of five MLS vs. EPL clashes set for Wednesday.
“We have great facilities, great soccer fans — it’s great for everybody,” Nowak said. “We as a nation right now are moving forward and everyone sees that. It’s not only marketing, it’s not only selling jerseys; it’s about good football. It’s beneficial for everybody.”
Last year, the Union hosted a trio of prestigious international friendlies, beating Scottish side Celtic FC and Mexican club CD Guadalajara by identical 1-0 score lines, while getting edged by Manchester United, 1-0.
Of course, the results don’t always give a good indication of how this country’s teams stack up against world powers considering MLS squads are in midseason form while most other clubs are in their offseason. However, these types of international exhibitions still can be hugely beneficial — and exciting — for everyone involved.
“It’s a combination,” Union defender Danny Califf said when asked who benefits the most. “It’s great for the fans to watch a high-quality side they wouldn’t normally get a chance to see. It’s good for us veterans any time we can step on the pitch against quality players — and we don’t feel like there’s any pressure to get a result. And for the young guys it’s a great learning experience to see if they’re able to control their emotions and put their best foot forward and show themselves on a large stage.”
While these two upcoming games don’t count toward the MLS standings — and the Union will almost certainly give significant time to many of their untested players — Nowak still recognizes it’s a good opportunity to showcase his team’s abilities, against some of the world’s premier players.
The Union (8-4-7) currently sit in first place in the Eastern Conference, and are coming off their most convincing win of the season, a 3-0 triumph over New England at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
“It’s a good break,” Nowak said. “I think, of course, the quality of competition is great. The excitement is definitely there but we’ve got to put some quality in there, too.”
The Union are prepared to do just that — and have some fun along the way.
“I’m telling all the young players [that] we just have to enjoy it,” Philly’s 40-year-old goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón said. “For these kinds of parties, you don’t come in jeans, you don’t come in shorts. Everyone has to put their tuxedo on and enjoy the party.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.